By: Eleanor Brown (Bugle Team)

Salon, a science, art and psychology monthly showcase, is held in the upper room of a pub that feels like a place where politics, emotions and new scientific ideas have been discussed and debated throughout the centuries.  Theatre Bar at the KPH pub in West London serves as the perfect setting for the third and final talk in their Crime, Punishment and Retribution series.

The topic of the evening was Retribution, led by four speakers with entirely different approaches. The first, Jo Berry, spoke of the steps she went through to come to terms with her father’s death at the hands of an IRA bomber during the 1980s. Instead of blaming and demonising the bomber, Patrick McGee, Jo took steps to meet him. She spoke of how she had absolutely no control over her father’s death but that it was her choice how to respond to it. She could make an enemy of him and hate him, or attempt to re-humanise him and understand the elements of his life and the situational factors that had led to his joining the IRA. She explained that the demonization of people, being the cause of her father’s death, could not be the way to deal with loss. It was an inspiring response to an inconceivable pain. An interesting start to the evening, it was an entirely different and opposite take on retribution, though it sowed many seeds and threads that would be followed throughout.

The second speaker was Tim Newburn, a criminologist at LSE, who spoke about retribution within the context of the 2011 riots, touching on many aspects of social psychology among other things. According to him, the justice system’s retribution and subsequent punishment in response to the riots was unusually harsh; he explained that the extent and length of punishments for crimes committed during the uprising were substantially longer than those previously doled out for similar crimes, and that the usual sentencing guidelines were curiously suspended. As a co-author of a piece of joint research between LSE and The Guardian, Newburn interviewed 270 of the rioters from across the UK about their lives, as well as the reason behind their actions during the riots. There were some clear themes across the responses such as mentions of the riots being the best few days of their lives, due to the excitement of being able to loot. This is where ‘interpretive social science’ kicks in in an attempt to understand how these days, full of extreme violence towards property, as well as other human beings, could be described as “the best day of [someone’s] life”. Some possible interpretations of why these rioters felt this way could be their alienation from society, or the lack of appreciation and empathy of the consequences of their actions. Other themes that came out of the research were the feelings of empowerment and revenge; in this case the rioters felt they were claiming their retribution on what they called the “biggest gang”: the metropolitan police. Being suddenly in charge and in control during the riots, young people put right their perceived injustices and moral double standards, for example the police being able to shoot someone and get away with it. Tim’s talk was incredibly interesting, well delivered, and thought provoking, tapping into both the causes and consequences of the riots.

A short talk by a third speaker followed, based on a director who taught the inmates of a Russian prison how to act and put on a series of plays. The prisoners worked hard and got a great deal out of it, highlighting the importance of rehabilitation and a sense of purpose during prison sentences. One inmate in particular, was described to play a Jewish man in one of the plays while having murdered two people in a racially motivated crime, which is an incredibly interesting idea and would really have forced the inmate to “walk in another’s shoes.”

The final talk was by Dr. Molly Crockett, a neuroscientist at Oxford University who spoke about the neuroscience of revenge. Initially, she explained that to set the scene for “revenge” in a lab, researchers often use an economic game involving two participants, one assuming the role of proposer and the other that of the responder. The “proposer” suggests a split of £10, for example £6 for them to keep and £4 for them to give away, to which the responder has to respond by accepting or rejecting the offer. If the offer is accepted, the suggested amount is how much each will get, but if they choose to reject the offer, neither will get any money. Results generally show that people care about fairness and are more likely to reject unfair offers, causing the “revenge” of neither player getting any money. Molly studied this in her lab while manipulating the levels of serotonin in the brain, which is famed for its effect on mood but also influences retribution. In the serotonin-depleted category, there was an increase in rejections (and therefore revenge) of unfair splits of money, whereas in the serotonin-enhanced category, participants were less likely to reject unfair offers. This has implications relating to everyday factors that deplete serotonin such as chronic stress, poverty and poor nutrition, which could lead to people being more likely to seek revenge on perceived injustices. An excellent speaker with fascinating research under her belt, Dr. Crockett also gave a TED talk in 2012, which I strongly urge you to watch – the link can be found below.

Overall the evening was thought provoking and provided many different threads of discussion, all weaving into the theme of retribution. Judging by the quality and stimulating character of the event, I regret not having seen the two preceding talks on Crime and Punishment. Though this series is over however, the Salon regularly holds many interesting events, and I would definitely recommend attending them!

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